Crisis Management: Surviving A Crisis Psychologically: Self-help
The client under public attack looked beat – and beaten. His symptoms were familiar: a thousand-yard stare like a combat veteran just back from the front, slumped shoulders, and eyes hollowed out by insomnia. Most noticeable was his habit every few minutes of sighing as though he were exhaling his last breath. This was someone so troubled that you wanted to protect him, to shield him, to put your hand on his shoulder and say, “It will be alright.”
I see this syndrome occasionally, a condition that strikes executives trying to haul their company or organization out of a public crisis – especially a dilemma not easily resolved that seems to deepen by the day. Such seemingly intractable predicaments are numbing, depressing, and they distort a person’s perspective.
These beleaguered leaders are pre-occupied with carping news media, and often with one particular reporter. They are inclined to think that if only that specific journalist could be taken off the story or overruled by editors then the problem would diminish or perhaps go away. This bewilderment extends to the assessment of news stories. Articles that are not positive are seen as sensational unjustified attacks shot through with unfairness.
Secrecy is attractive. The tendency is to turn inward, hide behind a lawyer, a written statement, or a terse “no comment.”
It is also fight or flight time. Some consider quitting. However, since most executives perceive fleeing as failure, they may prefer to fight back. Counter-attacking critics is appealing. “If they can jump on us, well, by God, watch what we can do to them.” A battle of the sound bites may ensue. For every accusation there is counter-accusation. Full-page newspaper ads may be attractive for casting aspersions on opponents.
This is the bunker mentality of an the official on the spot who feels overwhelmed and wonders whether light will ever appear at the tunnel’s end.
After witnessing this psychological pattern again recently I wanted to write about it to offer encouragement to anyone facing a crisis or fearing one. Based on what I have seen work, here are my mental health suggestions:
– This is good. As long as you are tackling the problem you are on the offense, not the defense. It will occupy your brain. Self-help guru Brian Tracy likes to say that the mind can’t hold two thoughts at once, so replace the negative with a positive. Action plans do that. An active mind is also a moving target for dark moods. (Just be careful to act constructively and reassuringly.)
– Update stakeholders frequently about your corrective efforts. Keeping them in the know will maintain them as allies or at least neutral parties, and allies can trump enemies.
– You will tend to pull in and be defensive. Don’t! Avoid isolation. Keep moving, meeting the public, customers, clients, and friends. They can boost your spirits and perhaps add fresh insight.
– Continue your corrective actions and eventually, if they are appropriate, they should take hold. All of us like to see the good guys win eventually even if they stumble initially. Believe that you will prevail.
Take negative press in stride
– While you remedy your condition, you will endure shots from the press, especially if enemies or victims are inciting reporters. (That is why I recommend “taking care of victims or perceived victims” in a crisis. Without complaining victims there is less grist for the media mill.) Accept that negative stories will linger, so attempt to use them as a forum to repeat how you are trying to fix things.
This too shall pass
– This is difficult, but you must believe that if you are doing the best you can, then the current turmoil should subside. One practical reason for it to fade is that once you have untangled your predicament, your circumstances will shift from being a bad news story (which reporters prize) to a good news story (which journalists liken to kissing their sister). Once operating smoothly you will no longer be cannon fodder and should disappear from the front page. You could even become the subject of a good news turnaround article. (Remember that a turnaround story will still repeat the initial insult that caused you trouble in the beginning.) You will become non-news, which will an immense relief.
All my clients who nobly withstood months, even years, of public vilification in pursuit of doing the right thing, are now well. Their spirits are good. Their institutions or businesses are sound. The black headlines are gone. While they will never forget what happened, they overcame the heaving sighs, the insomnia, and the thousand-yard stares. As long as you are doing what is right, realize that you too will overcome, and the darkness will lift.